NSF Proposal Changes Embrace Alternative Research Products And Broader Impacts

While the changes were announced last fall, the reality hits on Monday.  That’s when NSF proposals will need to be more explicit in how they address principles of merit review and research communications.  The enforcement mechanism, as described by The Chronicle of Higher Education, will be the grant submission website Fastlane.  If various criteria are not met, the submission will not be accepted.

Merit review will get additional attention in the research summary section.  While the length remains the same (roughly one page), there are now three separate components required: a description of the project and statements on how the project fulfills the broad merit review requirements of intellectual merit and broader impacts.

What is perhaps the more radical change concerns the publications section.  As Heather Piowar notes in Nature (soon-to-be behind a paywall, alternate version available here), applicants can list in their biographical sketch what research products they have created, instead of just publications.  Such research products could include data sets, patents, copyrights and other scientific output that can be easily located and cited.  In other words, alternate forms of communication to the traditional journal article are now going to count.

While researchers may complain more about the changes concerning how their project fulfills merit review requirements, those requirements have been around for a while.  The changes around research communication could well encourage more work on products that have value to research, but have been discounted or uncounted because they don’t resemble the traditional unit of research communication – the journal article.  Which alternative products achieve traction will depend on how easy it will be to count, track and otherwise analyze such material.  In other words, there needs to be an impact factor for that data set, or download statistics for that research tool in order for it to be something the researcher should list on the grant application.

A barrier to credit may have been lowered, but the work in getting that credit is far from over.


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